More (New) Schools for Baton Rouge

More (New) Schools for Baton Rouge


By Sara Bongiorni
There is no arguing the role of New Schools for Baton Rouge in the lives of local children. It supported 19 nonprofit schools that enrolled more than 7,000 students in 2019-20. Four more will open in the fall to raise enrollment in NSBR-backed schools to 8,500, nearly one of every four kids in public schools. We asked NSBR CEO Chris Meyer about the nonprofit school accelerator’s recent work and plans for 2020-21.

Currents: An aim of NSBR is expanding capacity to support 20,000 students by 2021. Are you on track to do that?

Chris Meyer, CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge | Photo by Tim Mueller
Chris Meyer, CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge | Photo by Tim Mueller

We will meet that goal. When we started in 2012, our aim was helping more than 30,000 students at failing and underperforming schools by providing them with access to high-quality school alternatives.

By fall, we will have launched more than two dozen schools run by rigorously screened successful school organizations and leaders. These schools are, on average, providing students with the equivalent of more than 100 additional learning days in math and nearly 90 additional learning days in reading compared to the schools our students would have otherwise attended, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes.

That is more than half a traditional school year of extra learning in reading and math. That should be both a cause for celebration and a call to action for schools that fail to deliver on their promises to families.

What are factors in NSBR’s continuing growth?

We are expanding high-quality schools and taking action to transform or close schools that are underperforming and not in demand by families. With community and government leaders, we have created a strong ecosystem for educational progress that is attracting some of the best talent and school operators in the country.

What is important for the community to understand about NSBR in 2020?

We are one of the few cities in America experiencing educational progress on this scale. We are partnering with some of the most in-demand school organizations nationally. We have been successful because of the tireless efforts of our team and unique partnerships and assets in our community.

Foundation Fact: The Baton Rouge Area Foundation created New Schools for Baton Rouge, and provided the nonprofit with startup funding. Now on its own, NSBR recruits only the best nonprofit schools in the country, provides them with financial support and holds them accountable. The East Baton Rouge School System has authorized some of the charter schools to operate in the parish.
Our civic and business leadership, deeply committed donor base and supportive political environment are allowing Baton Rouge to transform an inequitable and historically underperforming school system into one where families and educators have the power to attend or work at the schools they choose.

This allows schools to educate children to realize their full potential regardless of the where they grow up in Baton Rouge.

What tells you that you are succeeding?

Several factors show unequivocally that we are achieving the impact we seek.

First, families are voting with their feet to attend the open-enrollment schools we are launching. Each of our schools has a wait list, many for multiple grades and some numbering in the thousands of students. This tells us we should open more schools.

Second, our initial mission was eliminating failing schools and giving students and families access to high-performing ones. We are doing that. Today, 2,600 fewer students attend an underperforming school. That matters tremendously for families working to fulfill dreams for their children and improve our communities and economic opportunities.

Finally, and most importantly, students in our schools are achieving real, measurable learning gains that enable them to compete with students nationally and across the world.

What work remains to be done?

We still have more than three dozen schools in Baton Rouge that are not delivering results for students. We need to change that. There are thousands of families on wait lists for the chance to attend a new school. About 15,000 students are still enrolled in D- or F-rated schools.

You are a couple of years into use of the Portfolio model with its focus on autonomy and accountability paired with investment in successful schools and closure or overhaul of failing ones. How does the Portfolio approach shape your operations?

We practice what we preach. While the vast majority of the schools we have opened are producing great results for students, a few did not live up to our standards or community expectations.

We worked with the nonprofit boards and leaders of these schools to transition these families to better school options.

We have also realized stronger partnerships with the local school district, which has adopted transparent policies to govern nonprofit public charter schools. These are wins that align with our approach to push resources and decision-making closer to educators and the students they serve.

Are there aspects of the Portfolio model that are distinct to Baton Rouge?

We are unique in the caliber of public charter schools we have attracted to Baton Rouge. Pound-for-pound, national experts deem our city as having one of the strongest charter sectors in the country.

Are you seeing interest in the Portfolio model among traditional public schools in Baton Rouge?

We see an emphasis in pushing decision-making and resources to the school level, particularly in the district’s innovation network. This enhanced autonomy needs to be coupled with accountability for results. Autonomy should be given to schools that demonstrate effectiveness, and then we should help those schools grow to serve more families. We know there are high-performing schools in the district that are in high demand. We should start by granting these schools greater autonomy and allowing them to expand to serve more students and/or oversee additional schools.

Looking toward the next five years or so, what do you think the Baton Rouge schools landscape will look like? What do you expect your role in that landscape to be?

I am optimistic about the future of K-12 education in Baton Rouge. We are turning a corner where students will have enormous choice in what school to attend. Educators will have more agency, and wages will rise as teachers are compensated for skills and effectiveness instead of time. There will be challenges, to be sure, and our organization will continue to look for system-level solutions to ensure all students in Baton Rouge have the chance to attend a great school.

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